Aengus Anderson: Welcome back to The Conversation. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Neil Prendergast: And I’m Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And Micah Saul has recused him­self from this dis­cus­sion because we are going to be talk­ing about online activism, indi­vid­ual lib­er­ties, and lots of stuff that he actu­al­ly knows far more about than either of us but he also works in that field for Big Brother. So, Micah did­n’t real­ly want to get involved. He thought we would real­ly be the good ones to have this con­ver­sa­tion because we can say what­ev­er we want.

Prendergast: The advan­tages of being Little Brother.

Anderson: The advan­tages of being Little Brother. The advan­tages of being underemployed. 

So, that may be enough of a teas­er. Today we’re talk­ing to Rainey Reitman. She’s the Activism Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Which means that she spends her time try­ing to make a host of dig­i­tal and civ­il lib­er­ties issues things that you under­stand and care about. We’re talk­ing about things like Internet reg­u­la­tion, gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance, and pri­va­tized space. And in terms of actu­al­ly tan­gi­bly what Rainey is doing, she and her col­leagues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation are reg­u­lar­ly fil­ing law­suits. They’re orga­niz­ing online activism. They’re devel­op­ing soft­ware tools. And they’re rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness of dig­i­tal lib­er­ties issues. Rainey’s also the cofounder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and sits on the boards of numer­ous oth­er groups ded­i­cat­ed to main­tain­ing open information.

Prendergast: Right. And so I would put her into this camp of the doers. And so often in our dis­cus­sions, after the inter­views we say okay but, what would this look like if this great idea was deployed on the ground? And I think you’re going to hear a lot about that in this interview.

Rainey Reitman: The Electronic Frontier Foundation and my work is focused on civ­il lib­er­ties. And we’re actu­al­ly deal­ing with how con­sti­tu­tion­al rights—so these ideas that we have you know, the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, about what rights we have to speak and read and have pri­va­cy, how those are trans­lat­ing into dig­i­tal spaces. As we’ve moved into increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal spaces, so online worlds, we’re mov­ing away from your tra­di­tion­al phys­i­cal spaces where you have pub­lic streets; where you have pub­lic squares; where peo­ple can go to protest, and into areas, if you would call them that, that are entire­ly con­trolled by cor­po­ra­tions. Whether it’s your ISP that is con­nect­ing you to the Internet, or it’s your third-party inter­me­di­aries like Facebook, which is mak­ing poli­cies around what kind of speech they’ll tol­er­ate, what kind of pri­va­cy options they’ll have. Whether it’s some­body like Google decid­ing whether or not cer­tain things will be allowed in search results. And so instead of the world that we knew pre­vi­ous­ly, and we still have, which had a lot of these tra­di­tion­al pub­lic spaces, we’re see­ing how our world is trans­lat­ing into a place where your rights are get­ting dic­tat­ed by terms of ser­vice that nobody’s reading.

Anderson: And I mean, this is going to sound so naïve but like, this is some­thing I had­n’t thought about before, but that most of our law is based on phys­i­cal space. The Internet we do think of with spa­cial metaphors

Reitman: We do.

Anderson: But it exists and it was the cre­ation of an era that is high­ly cor­po­ra­tized, where­as prob­a­bly the laws that gov­ern pub­lic space were cre­at­ed in the 18th century.

Reitman: Right, exact­ly. You know, I think about this in par­tic­u­lar with free speech issues. You know, we have as a soci­ety real­ly upheld First Amendment val­ues about tol­er­at­ing speech even if we com­plete­ly dis­agree with it. Even if we think that it is abhor­rent speech that we real­ly wish nobody would hold those views. Still we’re going to allow that speech to take place because we as a soci­ety have decid­ed, have found­ed our coun­try on this idea, that we want to have free expres­sion for every­one. We want peo­ple to be able to speak their minds, and that we as a soci­ety are ben­e­fit­ing from that lev­el of tolerance.

But when you move into an online world, you have places, if you would call them that—web sites—which might for exam­ple put up a pol­i­cy that says, Well, we’re not going to allow cer­tain types of hate speech. We’re not going to allow cer­tain types of con­duct which would offend many of our users.” So for exam­ple we see Facebook tak­ing down the groups for women who engage in breast­feed­ing. Or they might get pres­sure from oth­er groups to take down oth­er types of con­tent, whether it’s that they don’t want to allow Nazi sym­pa­thiz­ers to be on Facebook. Or whether they’ll get pres­sure from one polit­i­cal group or anoth­er to remove cer­tain types of speech. And it can become a PR night­mare for Facebook to attempt to stand up for those less-popular forms of speech, and so it’s eas­i­er for them to sim­ply take it down. 

That’s not some­thing spe­cif­ic about Facebook. I don’t want to pick on them, they just hap­pen to be one of the biggest online social networks—they are the biggest online social net­work out there. It’s some­thing we’re going to see in every sin­gle web site that we bump into, where they are set­ting up terms of ser­vice that decide what kind of speech is okay. What does that do to our soci­ety if all of a sud­den instead of hav­ing this broad tol­er­ance for free expres­sion, for speech that we dis­agree with, we have com­pa­nies who are incen­tivized to take down speech that’s unpop­u­lar? And I think that is a very dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion for us to get into.

Anderson: And it seems real­ly unprece­dent­ed in a lot of ways, in that we have this par­al­lel world that we all exist in now—at least if you’re online, you have to exist in privately-owned spaces. There is no pub­lic infrastructure.

Reitman: Right, yeah. No, we don’t have any­thing like a pub­lic square or pub­lic streets in the world of the Internet, if you would call it that. Another exam­ple that I’ve been real­ly think­ing about a lot for the last cou­ple years is finan­cial trans­ac­tions in the Internet world. And I think a very good exam­ple of this would be around WikiLeaks and how right after WikiLeaks start­ed pub­lish­ing the State Department cables we saw them get shut down by PayPal, by Visa, by MasterCard. And I think it was a wake-up call for a lot of peo­ple that in fact it’s very hard to exist on the Internet as an enti­ty that is donation-driven if all the major pay­ment providers decide with­out a court order, with­out an enti­ty even get­ting accused of a crime, that they’re not going to allow pay­ments to be processed for them.

Anderson: That’s fas­ci­nat­ing, right, because the phys­i­cal space ana­log would be walked down to the office, you send in your check through pub­lic mail…

Reitman: Right. Or you give them cash.

Anderson: Right.

Reitman: I mean, at the end of the day, I think one of the—

Anderson: There’s a phys­i­cal thing.

Reitman: Well, we’re work­ing towards a world where more and more trans­ac­tions are online. Online trans­ac­tions don’t allow you to pay with cash, they just don’t. I mean, we could start talk­ing about Bitcoin and that’s a fas­ci­nat­ing issue, but right now we are see­ing that pay­ment inter­me­di­aries like PayPal and Visa and MasterCard, they’re hav­ing huge influ­ence over what kind of speech can sur­vive on the Internet because it can get mon­ey in the door. And that means that these com­pa­nies are set­ting up poli­cies and then arbi­trar­i­ly enforc­ing them where they see fit. And the effect is that cer­tain types of speech will with­er and die on the Internet because it can’t get mon­ey in the door.

Anderson: What are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions if this keeps play­ing out? It’s easy to brain­storm a bunch of stuff relat­ed to free speech. What else happens?

Reitman: That’s inter­est­ing. Let me think what else hap­pens. It’s so easy for me to think of what hap­pens to free speech. I think anoth­er implication…and I don’t know if this will hap­pen. It’s some­thing I’m cer­tain­ly con­cerned about as we move into more and more of our trans­ac­tions in life going onto the Internet: the constantly-identifiable per­son online. 

You know, if we look at the ear­ly days of the Internet, it used to be that you could go and you could join var­i­ous groups and you could have an iden­ti­ty, you could try on an iden­ti­ty. You could go to a dif­fer­ent group, you could try on a dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ty. Increasingly we’re see­ing per­sis­tent iden­ti­fiers sort of lin­ger­ing as you move from web site to web site. For exam­ple, any news arti­cle that you might want to com­ment on, you’re prob­a­bly sign­ing in with your Twitter account, with your Facebook account. Those things espe­cial­ly on Facebook, for exam­ple, are direct­ly linked to your real name. What you do and say online becomes direct­ly asso­ci­at­ed with who you are in the phys­i­cal world. And I think that’s an inter­est­ing issue. As much as we try to defend free speech, I think we must also defend and tol­er­ate anony­mous speech. There are points of view and issues which for a whole slew of rea­sons we might not want to have tied to our real identities.

Anderson: Though I always think with anony­mous speech you always get that sort of state­ment that when it’s tied to who you actu­al­ly are, peo­ple behave bet­ter, right. Isn’t that kin­da the coun­ter­ar­gu­ment to that?

Reitman: Right. So is that what we want? I mean, at the end of the day is what we ulti­mate­ly want is a soci­ety where peo­ple are just on their best behav­ior all the time? And I don’t know if that’s exact­ly what we’re try­ing to achieve here. I mean, I think that’s an inter­est­ing coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. I’m not sure it’s true. But to the extent it is true, ulti­mate­ly I’m not sure that we want to be cre­at­ing poli­cies about what kind of speech is tol­er­at­ed sim­ply because it’s going to be the least offen­sive and the least in-your-face and the least radical. 

I often think back towards the ear­ly gay rights move­ment, or for exam­ple the gay rights move­ment right now in Russia. It was, and there it cur­rent­ly is very dif­fi­cult to speak out and say you know, I think that we should have equal rights.” And I won­der if for exam­ple in the future it was very hard to speak out online with­out hav­ing your iden­ti­ty tied to your real-name iden­ti­ty, would peo­ple be as bold, as will­ing to fight for some­thing they believe in, as will­ing to exper­i­ment with some­thing they were try­ing to fig­ure out what their views were, if they knew it was going to be tied to them for­ev­er? That’s the oth­er thing about the Internet, is it does­n’t for­get things.

Anderson: It does­n’t for­get, right. And I was think­ing of the quote, and I can’t remem­ber who said it right now but, Consistency is the hob­gob­lin of small minds.” And the notion that if you are expect­ed to be con­sis­tent through­out your life, in a way that sort of demands that you not grow.

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: And because I think con­sis­ten­cy is often seen as a virtue—

Reitman: The world changes.

Anderson: The world changes and the mind is incon­sis­tent and we form bad ideas often and have to revise them… So it seems like that—

Reitman: And soci­ety has changed. I mean, I look at you know, America when my grand­moth­er was a child and America now, and it’s wild­ly dif­fer­ent. And I think that that’s a good thing, to a large extent. I want to cre­ate a world online where indi­vid­u­als have the abil­i­ty to change over time and not con­stant­ly be stuck to the dark shad­ow of their ear­ly Internet experiences. 

Anderson: I think for a lot of peo­ple they’d go, Well you know, cor­po­ra­tions cre­at­ed these infra­struc­tures. We vol­un­tar­i­ly use them. We can choose oth­er cor­po­rate ones. It’s nev­er going to get me, there’s still this real world out here. I don’t need that.” Of course that seems like a fal­la­cy but I’d like to address that a lit­tle more.

Reitman: Well, I mean, we’re kind of talk­ing about the future, right? It used to be that talk­ing about dig­i­tal civ­il lib­er­ties issues was a lit­tle bit more fringe. This is a main­stream issue now, right. Technology has bled into every­thing we do. Most of us are car­ry­ing a lit­tle cell phone every­where we go. A lit­tle cell phone that is how we con­nect with our friends, that’s track­ing our loca­tion, that’s con­nect­ing us con­stant­ly to the world, that allows us to take pic­tures which have meta­da­ta in them which we post to Twitter. 

And then our finan­cial trans­ac­tions are increas­ing­ly mov­ing away from these cash-based, much hard­er to track sys­tems to these digital-based cred­it card-based, extreme­ly track­able sys­tems. We’re mov­ing into a world of smart hous­es that can actu­al­ly see what time you turn your tele­vi­sion on every day. What time you’re turn­ing it off every day. Is there a par­tic­u­lar day when you par­tic­u­lar­ly left it on a lit­tle bit longer? When are you using your microwave? And it’s all a com­put­er­ized sys­tem that’s actu­al­ly inte­grat­ed. And for our ben­e­fit is the argu­ment with the tech­nolo­gies we use every sin­gle day. And cars are get­ting this way, too. 

Anderson: So, we get to the word that— Or the two words that you had been just thrilled that I used at some point, big data,” right.

Reitman: Yes. Big data.

Anderson: We are cre­at­ing these enor­mous trails everywhere.

Reitman: Right, that’s com­plete­ly correct.

Anderson: And they’re moored to what we do in the phys­i­cal world.

Reitman: Right. Our physical—

Anderson: But they’re con­trolled in the pri­vate world?

Reitman: Well, so here’s what’s up. I don’t know if I think of the phys­i­cal world as the phys­i­cal world any­more. The phys­i­cal world and the dig­i­tal world are becom­ing increas­ing­ly inter­twined, and it’s going to hap­pen in extra­or­di­nary ways that you and I prob­a­bly can’t even pre­dict, but we can try right now. Which is going to be that every­thing in the phys­i­cal world is going to have this dig­i­tal trail attached to it. 

You know, one of the things they’ve talked about are sort of your your respon­sive adver­tise­ments on the street. You know, would we be will­ing to walk by a bill­board that could see, back at us, how old we are, what our gen­der was, and show us an appro­pri­ate ad? Would we want that kind of a bill­board, for exam­ple, to do facial recog­ni­tion on us and match it to Facebook pro­files of peo­ple in this area? And what would that be like? 

I mean, again, I’m sort of doing sort of large-scale like, long-term…what could it be like to be in the phys­i­cal world years from now. But it’s not that the tech­nol­o­gy isn’t there. Some of that tech­nol­o­gy already exists. The ques­tion is you know, how’s it going to get imple­ment­ed? And the truth is every­thing we do is going to be cre­at­ing this long data trail about us, and then that’s a data trail that’s inter­est­ing for com­pa­nies that are inter­est­ed in doing adver­tis­ing. It’s also inter­est­ing to the gov­ern­ment that wants to…I don’t know, tracked down peo­ple evad­ing their tax­es, or go after ter­ror­ism or what have you. And increas­ing­ly I think that indi­vid­u­als want access to that kind of data. 

Anderson: And that’s where it gets real­ly inter­est­ing. So it feels like we have this old phys­i­cal realm, which has a lot of pub­lic space built into it.

Reitman: Mm hm.

Anderson: We cre­ate a new dig­i­tal realm which is entire­ly divid­ed up amongst pri­vate holders. 

Reitman: Mm hm.

Anderson: The dig­i­tal realm moves into the phys­i­cal realm.

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: So it’s basi­cal­ly a blan­ket over the old pub­lic phys­i­cal realm.

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: You’re in a pub­lic street, but your car is send­ing back pri­vate data through pri­vate airways.

Reitman: That’s right. And then the oth­er thing about that is data stor­age is cheap. It’s not expen­sive. It’s gonna get cheap­er and cheap­er and cheap­er. Tracking mech­a­nisms are going to get more sen­si­tive, more sophis­ti­cat­ed. And we’re going to get to this place where…and we are…kin­da push­ing into it right now, where the default is to remem­ber every­thing.

Anderson: I mean, it feels like we’re so young in the way we’re going into this. And our expec­ta­tions are so child­ish. We go, I want to remem­ber everything!”—

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: —with­out the wis­dom to say, Well, the brain for­gets in a lot of ways so can fil­ter data.”

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: Or so it can for­give. Total mem­o­ry can be such a curse. Are we learn­ing that, or do we need to learn that in the dig­i­tal realm?

Reitman: Well cer­tain­ly there are his­tor­i­cal things that’ve hap­pened that it would ben­e­fit our soci­ety to remem­ber. But the abil­i­ty to change and adapt, the abil­i­ty to try new things, the abil­i­ty to for­give, and for­give our­selves… Those are things that I think a lit­tle bit of for­get­ful­ness can be help­ful with.

The oth­er thing is that…and this is the big ele­phant in the room: what about pri­va­cy? Don’t peo­ple have a need to be able to make cer­tain things pri­vate? More and more social net­works and online spaces are mak­ing things pub­lic by default, and I think as a soci­ety we’re start­ing to tol­er­ate the public-by-default con­cept. Is this some­thing that we the con­sumer (if you would call it that) want? Or is this some­thing that those cor­po­rate enti­ties, which are in fact the ones that are cre­at­ing and admin­is­ter­ing these online ser­vices, get a lot of ben­e­fits out of and so they’re push­ing us there as much as they can? And so pub­lic, record­ed, nev­er deleted.

Anderson: Do you think there’s a bias in tech­nol­o­gy itself that leads towards the cre­ation of data and the cen­tral­iza­tion of con­trol? By always…

Reitman: Yes. [laughs]

Anderson: Oh, that’s fas­ci­nat­ing. I was not expect­ing you to say that.

Reitman: So you were say­ing a bias in tech­nol­o­gy itself that leads the cen­tral­iza­tion of con­trol and the col­lec­tion of data?

Anderson: Right, because it seems like a lot of what tech­nol­o­gy does is it gives us the abil­i­ty to do more things with few­er people. 

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: And so in a way like, it can expand con­trol. And of course—

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: —the coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is always like, the Internet is this great demo­c­ra­t­ic force…

Reitman: Kind of. So, I also think tech­nol­o­gy’s chang­ing, the Internet’s chang­ing. If you look back his­tor­i­cal­ly the Internet was some­thing where like, you would order your com­put­er, you’d put it togeth­er your­self. Free soft­ware advo­cates are extreme­ly pas­sion­ate about this, about the abil­i­ty to…to tin­ker. For exam­ple one of the issues we deal with a lot is sort of how indi­vid­u­als with for exam­ple dis­abil­i­ties want to be able to hack their phones a lit­tle bit so that it works for them.

But, as more and more peo­ple are using tech­nol­o­gy, we’ve start­ed to pri­or­i­tize mak­ing it easy? And in fact, com­pa­nies have—and Apple is the obvi­ous exam­ple of this—have pri­or­i­tized mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to hack around, with the idea being that the com­pa­ny knows best. Don’t try to tweak it. Don’t try to make it your own. We’ll ship the best pos­si­ble prod­uct and you just buy that prod­uct; it does this thing that we told you it would do. 

That shift, from hack­ing to receiv­ing, is a shift that lends itself to cen­tral­ized con­trol. So, that is an issue that is going to be some­thing we’re already grap­pling with, quite frankly, in the tech­nol­o­gy space. And then as far as the col­lec­tion of data, yes, a lot of the com­put­er tech­nolo­gies we’re deal­ing with col­lects data. And I, I think that there’s a cou­ple of issues to flesh out in there, but one thing I think would be impor­tant is enough trans­paren­cy so that an indi­vid­ual knows what a com­pa­ny has on them.

Anderson: Right. Yeah. 

Reitman: And we’re seen this right now with the National Security Agency, right. We’re see­ing increas­ing­ly, peo­ple are up in arms because…not to switch from pri­vate com­pa­nies to the sur­veil­lance issues, but they’re con­nect­ed in a lot of ways.

Anderson: Oh yeah. And we can switch to them. I mean, that was some­thing that I talked to James Bamford about a lot. It con­nects to kind of where I want­ed to go next, where does all of this lead?

Reitman: Right. 

Anderson: And Bamford, who was look­ing specif­i­cal­ly at the gov­ern­ment, basi­cal­ly said police state.” If you want to look at the worst case sce­nario, and that’s not inevitable, but like, it becomes a lot eas­i­er if you’re in pow­er to sur­veil peo­ple, you know. It’s some­thing you can auto­mate now in new ways. And he talked about, with the Stasi you’ve got to have one guy, one set of ear­phones, one target.

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: And we’re way beyond that.

Reitman: No, he’s com­plete­ly right, we are way beyond that. We have tools now avail­able to the gov­ern­ments for sur­veil­lance that we could nev­er have even dreamed of fifty, a hun­dred years ago. Most recent­ly leaks seem to indi­cate that the gov­ern­ment is get­ting tru­ly mind-boggling amounts of data about our Internet usage, and also track­ing phone records of mil­lions of phone users, so. I don’t know that I like to use the word police state.” And the rea­son I don’t is because I think that peo­ple don’t respond well to it? [laughs]

Anderson: Well, I cer­tain­ly— I mean, it’s easy to write off, right?

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: Because you think, Oh, Orwell. We’re not— I mean, it’s sun­ny San Francisco out­side. We’re not deal­ing with that.”

Reitman: Right. And it’s a beau­ti­ful day and you know, I’m using my Fitbit to track my exer­cise, and I’m check­ing my Google cal­en­dar, and it’s send­ing an auto­mat­ic update to my phone which gives me loca­tion direc­tions to every­where. So what if the NSA has a back­door to these sorts of things. I’m sure they’re not inter­est­ed in me. 

That’s what I hear some­times. So what I try­ing to say is that look, at the end of the day, we found­ed our coun­try with cer­tain beliefs about when the gov­ern­ment could and could­n’t get access to our com­mu­ni­ca­tions, to our pri­vate records. You need­ed to have prob­a­ble cause and a judge need­ed to sign off on it. Well, tech­nol­o­gy has moved so quick­ly, and we have been so reac­tive to some of the tragedies in our his­to­ry as a coun­try that we’ve put in place secret courts that are autho­riz­ing drag­net sur­veil­lance. And I think it’s some­thing that now that it’s been made pub­lic we real­ly need to have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about whether it’s some­thing we’re com­fort­able with. I’m not com­fort­able with it. And I think if we don’t stop it right now it’s going to get a lot worse.

Anderson: And it seems like there’s a big under­cur­rent here. You were talk­ing about how much our soci­ety has changed since your grand­moth­er’s time.

Reitman: Mm hm.

a I’ve talked to a lot of peo­ple in this project about civ­il rights issues. 

Reitman: Mm hm.

Anderson: And, many of those things were illegal.

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: If you look at the civ­il rights move­ment, it was a lot of African American peo­ple being illegal. 

Reitman: Right. 

Anderson: Under the law they were…wrong.

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: As we talk about this stuff, it seems like a big part of the free speech that we were talk­ing about ear­ly in our con­ver­sa­tion all ties back to this notion that change that is moral­ly good can be illegal.

Reitman: I think that’s right. And I think this ties back to what you were say­ing about for­get­ting ear­li­er. It is…difficult in the moment to grab a protest of thou­sands of peo­ple and arrest them all and hold them account­able and charge with tres­pass­ing, and then take them to court one at a time. I mean, that’s a pain, right. And doing it in real-time would be kind of…bit of a media splash. 

Well, it’s easy to take a pho­to­graph of a protest. And the tech­nol­o­gy that we have now can actu­al­ly hone in on each and every per­son. And as facial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy increas­es, it will be eas­i­er and eas­i­er to iden­ti­fy every per­son and to keep that infor­ma­tion on file, whether it’s now or six months from now or two years from now. And I won­der not only the extent to which indi­vid­u­als who are attend­ing those kinds of events would face reper­cus­sions that they would­n’t have faced his­tor­i­cal­ly— I mean his­tor­i­cal­ly, we have held a cer­tain amount of tol­er­ance for civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, a will­ing­ness to allow peo­ple to push hard to change the law, includ­ing by tres­pass­ing on the law as part of a protest men­tal­i­ty, and then have a cer­tain amount of lenien­cy to them.

Well, as we move into increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal worlds, are we going to have that lenien­cy? And, do we have any pos­si­bil­i­ty of ever for­get­ting? That does­n’t just affect the peo­ple who attend, for exam­ple, a protest. It effects all the peo­ple who decide not to go to a protest.

Anderson: That’s what I was think­ing, it’s got a chill­ing effect, right?

Reitman: It has a huge chill­ing effect. It’s the knowl­edge that any time you go some­where, to a pub­lic place or what have you, you’ve got this record of it. And I think there can be real soci­etal harms to hav­ing con­stant­ly track­able and trace­able tech­nol­o­gy infil­trat­ing every­thing we do.

Anderson: A lot of the pro­po­nents of track­ing, I mean there’s obvi­ous­ly the side that well, it can make your life more con­ve­nient. But I think the oth­er part of it you allud­ed to ear­li­er in regards to ter­ror­ism, is that a lot of this stuff makes you safer. It makes peo­ple behave bet­ter. It’s the panop­ti­con thing, right?

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: When you know you’re being watched, you don’t do any­thing wrong.

Reitman: Right. Well, I think that there’s dif­fer­ent stud­ies as to the effi­ca­cy of the panop­ti­con. Before we start sell­ing our pri­va­cy off we should know at what cost. At 0.000000002% increase in secu­ri­ty for all of our pri­va­cy? I mean, that does­n’t seem like a very good deal to me. And so I think there’s effi­ca­cy questions…

And then, I remem­ber I was talk­ing to some­one about it there was a study, and I think there’s ques­tions about the study, but it showed that there were a lot of peo­ple in America that were okay with trad­ing some of their pri­va­cy for a lit­tle more secu­ri­ty. And then the response was it does­n’t mat­ter because it’s absolute­ly uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. You know, I mean if I talk about what I want to move for­ward, I would like con­sti­tu­tion­al rights that we found­ed this coun­try on to come with us into the dig­i­tal age. Even as we’re real­ly mov­ing incred­i­bly fast into dig­i­tal worlds and chang­ing things, I don’t think that those basic val­ues should just get left by the way­side. I think we should bring them with us.

Anderson: Why are those con­sti­tu­tion­al val­ues good? Why not move into like a very com­fort­able sur­veil­lance state?

Reitman: [laughs] Why not move into a com­fort­able survei— You know, that’s…that’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. And one I haven’t been asked that often, I’ll be total­ly frank with you.

Anderson: Good. [Reitman laughs] You know, some­one’s got to go to bat for the dictatorship.

Reitman: Yeah, sure.

Anderson: Let it be me.

Reitman: I think that there’s a cou­ple of things. I mean, we’ve seen his­tor­i­cal­ly the incred­i­ble price that soci­eties have paid for sur­veil­lance states. I mean we saw it with the Stasi. I remem­ber I was actu­al­ly in Germany and went to the Stasi muse­um. I saw all of these dif­fer­ent sur­veil­lance devices they used against indi­vid­u­als and I actu­al­ly got to see pic­tures of peo­ple protest­ing and going into the Stasi head­quar­ters and find­ing their own records. And I got to see their faces. And just the shock and the pain that was just so appar­ent. That every­day indi­vid­u­als were deeply hor­ri­fied by what was going on. 

We’ve seen that in Egypt where we we saw peo­ple take over state secu­ri­ty head­quar­ters and go in and find the gov­ern­ment had been track­ing their Internet com­mu­ni­ca­tions in ways that hor­ri­fied them. And I actu­al­ly got to see pic­tures from there and I was struck by the sim­i­lar­i­ties. How that hurt and shock, almost a grow­ing numb­ness of not being able to han­dle it was just so clear on the faces of the people. 

It’s clear that when peo­ple real­ize it affects them, it hurts them on a gut lev­el. To be like, This is my life. This is my world. This is the neigh­bors that I talk to. These are the places I’ve gone…” That’s nobody’s busi­ness, peri­od.

Anderson: Right. So we can kin­da intel­lec­tu­al­ize this pri­va­cy con­ver­sa­tion all day long, but when you feel it and when you see that peo­ple have basi­cal­ly pried through your life—

Reitman: Right, I think that a prob­lem we’re fac­ing with defend­ing rights on the Internet is that too often peo­ple don’t real­ize it affects them until it is them. And so what we’ve got to do is find ways to talk to peo­ple about these issues so that they under­stand that it’s not an abstract prob­lem. It’s a prob­lem that affects them on a very per­son­al lev­el because they are Internet users. 

Anderson: How much of it also do you think ties into under­stand­ings of big sys­tems, right? So we can go about our lives and like, most peo­ple are just busy work­ing. And they go to work and they go home and they deal with mort­gage pay­ments and lots of oth­er things; kids and life, and it’s busy. 

The stuff you guys deal with here is real­ly kind of air war stuff. We’re talk­ing about law, and lob­by­ing, and things that’re hap­pen­ing far away—

Reitman: It’s hard to per­son­al­ize it, yeah. Well, I think it’s about hav­ing to under­stand big sys­tems, but I would also say that espe­cial­ly when it comes to sur­veil­lance issues, the gov­ern­ment has spent a lot of time being vague about the details, peri­od. And avoid­ing mak­ing those pub­lic. And they have resist­ed answer­ing our Freedom Of Information Act requests on these things. And they have fought us in court to not be trans­par­ent about the degree of domes­tic sur­veil­lance that’s going on. 

It has tak­en rev­e­la­tions from whistle­blow­ers to make a lot of this infor­ma­tion pub­lic. I mean, as hard as it is for every­day indi­vid­u­als to wrap their heads around big sys­tems, it’s much much hard­er if the gov­ern­ment has gone on a con­cert­ed cam­paign to hide the infor­ma­tion from people.

Anderson: I’m think­ing of this con­ver­sa­tion I had the oth­er day with an eco­nom­ic blog­ger named Charles Hugh Smith. We end­ed up talk­ing about does abun­dance, eco­nom­ic abun­dance, or at least rel­a­tive wealth make you not too con­cerned about any­thing that might require sac­ri­fice now. If your life is gen­er­al­ly pret­ty good, it does­n’t feel like you’re being spied upon, you’re rel­a­tive­ly wealthy, you kind of don’t imag­ine need­ing to use the First Amendment rights the same way…a black per­son would in 1964.

Reitman: Right. That it’s hard to move us out of our com­fort zone. I think that’s a real­ly inter­est­ing point. I see that in par­tic­u­lar with pop­u­lar tech­nolo­gies. So for exam­ple you know, nine of the well-known Internet com­pa­nies were impli­cat­ed in NSA spy­ing recent­ly. But, just see­ing the name Google” or Facebook” or what­ev­er on one of these leaked doc­u­ments, is that actu­al­ly going to incen­tivize peo­ple to aban­don their GMail accounts and their Facebook accounts? Or have they got­ten so used to it, so com­fort­able in those spaces, frankly enjoy­ing the com­mu­ni­ties that they may have there, that it’s hard to show them any­thing that would say, Okay, now don’t use GMail anymore?” 

Anderson: I think you made a real­ly inter­est­ing point talk­ing about their online com­mu­ni­ties. In a way, socially…if any­one lis­ten­ing has tried to opt out of Facebook they prob­a­bly know that it can be real­ly dif­fi­cult in that there are a lot of invites—

Reitman: Right.

Anderson: You know, all of your friends who are far away, you kind of lose track of them. Like, there are legit­i­mate uses for these things which make it… you pay a social price at this point for opt­ing out because so many have opt­ed in.

Reitman: Oh, absolute­ly. Absolutely. I think that I would­n’t want to leave my online com­mu­ni­ties. I’m sure you would­n’t, either. Probably peo­ple lis­ten­ing to this pod­cast would­n’t either.

Anderson: Totally.

Reitman: But then there’s a real ques­tions about okay, so if we don’t want to leave our online com­mu­ni­ties, and those com­mu­ni­ties are entire­ly con­trolled by cor­po­ra­tions, and those cor­po­ra­tions aren’t receiv­ing mon­ey from us most the time—they’re actu­al­ly sell­ing our data to adver­tis­ers or sell­ing access to it or sell­ing face­time with it, what way do we have even to push back and advo­cate for our rights? That’s a hard question.

Anderson: Especially when there’s maybe a hard­er ques­tion which is, from your stand­point here… I told you about the oth­er peo­ple in this project. How do you get them on board real­iz­ing that this issue is part of their issue? 

Reitman: So that’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. I don’t know if you fol­lowed the SOPA fights last year but let me recap it real quick. So there was this bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act. And it was a bill that was sup­posed to be pro­mot­ed to cut down on Internet piracy—so shar­ing unlaw­ful­ly. But the bill was writ­ten in a way that would have allowed whole web sites to be tak­en down. And it became very clear that the bill was actu­al­ly dan­ger­ous to the future of the Internet. It was a black­list bill that would silence whole por­tals of speech. 

And I was so impressed to see peo­ple band­ing togeth­er from all walks of life, every side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. I don’t mean just left and right, I mean all sorts of sides I did­n’t even know exist­ed. People who had nev­er worked on Internet issues before, jump­ing up and cam­paign­ing hard for this. All of these dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, they get the Internet. They get how impor­tant the Internet is to their future, and they get how much it brings to soci­ety. And when you show to them we’re talk­ing about the future of the Internet and the future of our abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er through the Internet, all of a sud­den it’s real for them.

Anderson: This seems like an issue that could uni­fy peo­ple from a lot of dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal stripes because it does­n’t mat­ter what you believe, at some point you may be in the posi­tion of need­ing to advo­cate some­thing unpop­u­lar. Whether you’re a gun own­er, or whether your some­one who’s push­ing a real­ly rad­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal bill… Do you think that this is an issue that maybe you could get a broad pop­u­lar con­sen­sus on?

Reitman:do think that it’s pos­si­ble to gal­va­nize peo­ple to under­stand how it affects them regard­less of their polit­i­cal back­ground. But I think that we are in our strongest posi­tion for advo­cat­ing for rights when com­pa­nies who exist and thrive because of the Internet under­stand the long-term val­ue of defend­ing the Internet and mak­ing a place that tol­er­ates free speech and pri­va­cy, and join every­day cit­i­zens in fight­ing for that. We saw that with SOPA, for exam­ple. Too often, and I think this is real­ly unfor­tu­nate, you see Internet star­tups that’re real­ly wor­ried about their start­up busi­ness, peri­od. They don’t have time to wor­ry about any­thing else. 

But in fact, they need to be in Washington lob­by­ing for smart tech­nol­o­gy poli­cies. Because the poli­cies that are adopt­ed today are the poli­cies we’re going to have ten, fif­teen, twen­ty years from now. They’re going to shape the poli­cies we have fifty, a hun­dred years from now. We real­ly have to try to get tech pol­i­cy in place that tol­er­ates both con­sti­tu­tion­al val­ues and soci­etal val­ues that we found­ed our coun­try on, and inno­va­tion. Period. It’s got to have both or we’re not going to be able to grow. 

One thing we can push for is to cre­ate norms on the Internet. You know, you think about well what can we do to sort of safe­guard the future of the Internet? And if we can cre­ate norms that are speech-tolerant, that are tol­er­ant of pri­va­cy, that are tol­er­ant of innovation—

Anderson: When we get into the norm is that a moral ques­tion? Is it say­ing sort of that free­dom of speech is a good? Maybe part of the big con­ver­sa­tion we need to be hav­ing about dig­i­tal lib­er­ties involves bring­ing that back to the front, and say­ing that here’s kind of ara­tional thing, our start­ing point that we need to talk about?

Reitman: Maybe. Maybe that’s right. I do think that free speech is an absolute good. I think that we can also come up with a lot of jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for it. But I don’t know that we should spend a lot of time hav­ing to do that, when there’s so many clear threats to it on the horizon. 

You know, our found­ing fathers kind of set out those con­sti­tu­tion­al rights for a rea­son. And it was because they had learned his­tor­i­cal­ly the con­se­quence of not hav­ing them in place. We want­ed to make the US dif­fer­ent, and I think we’ve seen those same val­ues be reflect­ed in many of the inter­na­tion­al agree­ments around human rights that’ve…you know, it’s not just a United States thing. 

So real­ly, I think that we have come over hun­dreds of years to start to under­stand that there’s great great val­ue in uphold­ing free expres­sion and free­dom of reli­gion. And I’d like to try to find ways to ensure that that con­tin­ues in the dig­i­tal world.

Anderson: Is this an issue of going out and per­suad­ing peo­ple? Or is this one of these things where peo­ple won’t real­ly change until maybe the loss of free­dom of speech real­ly hits them in an eco­nom­ic way, and that’s when they fix free­dom of speech? Do think con­ver­sa­tion matters?

Reitman: I think it does. Just to kind of encap­su­late EFF’s the­o­ry of change, we fight for civ­il lib­er­ties on three bat­tle­grounds. And the first is in the court­rooms. We try to cre­ate strong legal prece­dent, using the court sys­tems, that will uphold con­sti­tu­tion­al rights in dig­i­tal spaces even if they’re unpop­u­lar. Even if the aver­age cit­i­zen would say, Well, I don’t real­ly care about that kind of free speech. It’s not some­thing I agree with and I don’t real­ly want it to exist.” Setting that aside, we’re using the court sys­tems to fight for lib­er­ty, basically. 

The sec­ond we do is we cre­ate tech­nolo­gies. We have a tech­nol­o­gy team that actu­al­ly builds tech­nolo­gies that you can use online to for exam­ple safe­guard your pri­va­cy. We have a tool called HTTPS Everywhere that you can install for free and will give you a lit­tle bit more secu­ri­ty online.

And then what I do and what I think has made a huge effect is broad-scale advo­ca­cy. Teach the world about why this mat­ters. Teach the world about how they need to get involved for fight­ing for the future of the Internet and the future of tech­nol­o­gy, and inno­va­tion and free speech and pri­va­cy, or we’re not going to have it lat­er. Years ago that was more of a fringe issue; this is mov­ing front and cen­ter. This is becom­ing some­thing that has glob­al scale, that’s involv­ing tons of peo­ple on a lev­el that I don’t think we could’ve imag­ined before. And I think it’s becom­ing some­thing where every­day Internet users are pick­ing up the phone by the thou­sands and demand­ing Congress don’t infringe on their free speech rights online. 

Even though I don’t know that our politi­cians are going to enact thought­ful tech­nol­o­gy pol­i­cy that’s going to guide us along the way for the next fifty years, I think that the Internet’s going to sur­vive any­way, and that what’s going to hap­pen is you’re going to have geeks and neti­zens com­ing togeth­er and push­ing bound­aries in inno­v­a­tive ways, and cre­at­ing amaz­ing tech­nolo­gies. I sup­pose I’m a bit of an opti­mist about the human spir­it to tri­umph and route around, whether it’s cen­sor­ship or sur­veil­lance issues. No, there’s not gonna be a ton of fore­thought going into it but yes, we’re going to get through it anyway.

Aengus Anderson: One of the big things that jumped out at me was analo­gies of space.

Neil Prendergast: Yeah, that’s right where I kind of began. I was listening…the first sort of ten min­utes I was think­ing to myself, Well, this per­son­’s talk­ing about pub­lic space but it’s only dig­i­tal.” And then I was like, Oh yeah, that’s like a huge thing, though.” [laughs]

Anderson: There’s not only digital…

Prendergast: Yeah, there’s not only dig­i­tal, there’s this giant thing and she’s bring­ing it to our attention. 

Anderson: Which is great, for peo­ple who don’t work in that realm all the time? Like, it was eye-opening for me to hear her use the pub­lic space anal­o­gy in that way. People talk about infor­ma­tion super­high­way.” That’s an anal­o­gy that’s so overused, so yeah we think of the Internet as a series of roads. And we think of roads as phys­i­cal spaces. We do not always think of roads as pub­lic spaces. And we cer­tain­ly don’t take that think­ing and port it over to the dig­i­tal realm where we’re like, oh. Digital roads are all pri­vate roads. They’re all toll roads. There’s no pub­lic road, at all, and there’s no pub­lic square, at all. And then you begin to think like…well what do those things do out here in the real world? Like what are they for here? Like why pub­lic space here?

Prendergast: And I think there’s this bedrock of his­to­ry that she’s sort of rest­ing upon. And you go back to the the labor move­ment and its deep ori­gins in the 19th cen­tu­ry, and it’s real strength going into the 20th cen­tu­ry, and rec­og­nize how impor­tant pub­lic space was to that par­tic­u­lar social move­ment. It would’ve been impos­si­ble for say, the International Workers of the World to real­ly orga­nize at all if they could­n’t speak in pub­lic. So often you hear peo­ple like Mother Jones, or Eugene Debs, real­ly talk­ing about free speech as much as they were talk­ing about labor.

Anderson: But what if we don’t like Communists? What are some good move­ments that came out of pub­lic space? [both laugh]

Prendergast: Well. Okay. Well, most, right? I mean, the civ­il rights move­ment, claim­ing that look, there’s this way in which a restau­rant or hotel or a bus is a pub­lic space. It might be pri­vate­ly owned but it’s a pub­lic accom­mo­da­tion, in the words of the the Civil Rights Act. Those activists in the 50s and the 60s made peo­ple real­ize that access to pub­lic space meant access to being a part of the com­mu­ni­ty. Public space has always been a part of our polit­i­cal his­to­ry. And it’s real­ly inter­est­ing to me that you know, the Internet has kind of grown at a moment were…maybe oth­ers would agree with me on this, maybe not, but to me it seems that there’s been a retreat from pub­lic space in the last two or three decades. 

Anderson: And you mean in the phys­i­cal world.

Prendergast: Yeah, yeah I mean in the phys­i­cal world. You know, the town I live in, we actu­al­ly have this town square. And I mean it’s a square. Most towns have a main street, ours dead ends at the town square.

Anderson: That’s so charming.

Prendergast: Yeah, it is very charm­ing. It’s where the Christmas tree goes. It’s a gen­uine town square. It was there in the orig­i­nal plat of the town, it’s been pub­lic for the last 150 years, the ori­gins of the town are that old. But peo­ple don’t shop on Main Street so much around the square as much as they used to, as is the case I think in a lot of small towns. And instead you know, the real hop­ping retail space is out near the inter­state at a place called Crossroads Commons…which is not a com­mons at all.

Anderson: It’s deli­cious­ly ironic.

Prendergast: Yeah, right, right. That’s just one exam­ple but I think oth­ers could point to even more, where some peo­ple live in a pri­vatopia, where they almost nev­er touch pub­lic space except for the rub­ber of their SUV on the interstate.

Anderson: Which is inter­est­ing when you think about okay, so in the phys­i­cal world (if I buy the argu­ment you’re mak­ing), we’ve been get­ting increas­ing amounts of pri­vate space that kind of mas­quer­ades as pub­lic space. Giant cor­po­rate areas, gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties, that sort of thing. And con­cur­rent­ly, so much of our exis­tence has moved into dig­i­tal space, which is all pri­vate. Do you think the move towards pri­vate space in the phys­i­cal world has kind of con­di­tioned us to accept going into a dig­i­tal world where we don’t have any pub­lic space?

Prendergast: Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s kind of a work­able the­sis. I once heard a quote, some­thing along the lines of, when change hap­pens, peo­ple fol­low the ideas that are lying around.” I think Milton Friedman said that, actually.

Anderson: See, you can nev­er pre­dict what these nutjobs are gonna say. He prob­a­bly said it in pub­lic space, per­haps. You know, it’s inter­est­ing to think that okay, so we’ve got this retreat from pub­lic space in the phys­i­cal world, a move into a total­ly pri­vate space in the dig­i­tal world, and what are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of that? And I think that’s what Rainey does a real­ly good job of show­ing us. Public space mat­ters for any kind of social change. And when you don’t have it, and when your life is increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal, you are real­ly in a way sur­ren­der­ing your flex­i­bil­i­ty when it comes to try­ing to make a bet­ter future, a more fair future. I mean, you just men­tioned labor move­ments. You men­tioned civ­il rights. You know, there are a whole vari­ety of things that in a way hap­pened in quasi-legal or illegal ways, in pub­lic space, that led to reforms that we see as just absolute­ly essen­tial, if not moral­ly obvi­ous today. And it’s inter­est­ing to think of like, what is a world with­out dig­i­tal pub­lic space, and do you get that sort of change?

Prendergast: Right. And what’s inter­est­ing to me is how opti­mistic she seems to be?—

Anderson: Uh huh.

Prendergast: —that change can hap­pen, that some pub­lic space can kin­da be cre­at­ed online? I thought that that was real­ly amaz­ing giv­en that there’s real­ly not that space there now.

Anderson: And I won­der, can you get pos­i­tive change out of pri­vate spaces in the dig­i­tal world? Are you always going to be in like, ille­gal pri­vate spaces? If you could cre­ate a pub­lic dig­i­tal space, what would that yield that would be dif­fer­ent? And I think that’s some­thing that I kin­da wish we’d got­ten into a lit­tle bit more in the con­ver­sa­tion. What would a pub­lic dig­i­tal space do? What sort of rights bat­tle would hap­pen there? What sort of gov­ern­ment trans­paren­cy bat­tle would hap­pen there? Or do you even need it? Can you have that all on pri­vate space? I don’t know and I think that’s some­thing that’s prob­a­bly worth a lot of thought.

That was Rainey Reitman, inter­viewed on June 13th, 2013 in San Francisco, California. 

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.